Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806–1859) was a renowned 19th century engineer. His achievements include the steamships Great Western, Great Britain and Great Eastern.

Brunel’s early life

Brunel was born in Portsmouth in 1806, the only son of the French engineer Marc Brunel. He showed an aptitude for engineering from a young age and his father encouraged him by sending him to study in France with Abraham-Louis Breguet, the prominent master clockmaker and horologist. He returned to Britain in 1822, where one of his first jobs was assisting his father on the construction of the Thames Tunnel – an underground tunnel linking Wapping and Rotherhithe.

Clifton Suspension Bridge

One of Brunel’s best-known works is his design for the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which crosses the Avon Gorge, linking Clifton in Bristol to Leigh Woods in North Somerset. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering; spanning 702 ft. Sadly, Brunel didn’t live to see its completion in 1864.

Great Western Railway

Brunel was appointed Chief Engineer of the Great Western Railway in 1833. The line linked London to Bristol, and later Exeter. His work on the railway contains a number of achievements, including the Box Tunnel between Bath and Chippenham and the design of London Paddington railway station.

SS Great Western

It was always Brunel’s dream to expand the Great Western transport network so that it not only linked London to Bristol, but onwards to New York by steamship. This led to the construction of the SS Great Western in 1838, the first steamship purpose-built for crossing the Atlantic. She was an iron-strapped, wooden, side-wheel paddle steamer, with four masts to hoist the auxiliary sails. She was used regularly for transatlantic passenger travel between 1838 and 1846.

SS Great Britain

Brunel went on to design the SS Great Britain, regarded as the first modern steamship when launched in 1843. She was the largest ship of her time, built of metal, powered by an engine and driven by propeller rather than paddle wheel. Today, she has been fully restored and is on display in Bristol as a popular tourist attraction.

Discover more about the SS Great Britain on their website

SS Great Eastern

Brunel’s last project was designing the SS Great Eastern, built to take passengers non-stop from London to Sydney. It was an ambitious and groundbreaking feat of engineering, and the largest ship of its time. Brunel knew her affectionately as the ‘Great Babe’.

Sadly, Brunel, a heavy smoker, suffered a stroke just before Great Eastern's ill-fated maiden voyage in 1859, in which she was damaged by an explosion. Brunel died 10 days later, aged 53, leaving a pioneering legacy behind him.

Find out more about the Great Eastern

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